Monday, 23 April 2018

Russian Champs Crowned

There have been numerous people who have suggested that one of the big-spending Russian clubs would win this year's KHL Gagarin Cup, but it turns out that no one told Andrei Markov, Rob Klinkhammer, Danis Zaripov, or Anton Lander that the fix was in. Ak Bars Kazan went out and beat CSKA Moscow in five games after CSKA did the KHL a favour by eliminating SKA St. Petersburg in the semifinal. If someone in the Russian government was trying to fix the Gagarin Cup Playoffs, I'm guessing he's on the unemployment line right now.

Game One went in favour of Ak Bars Kazan as they won 2-1 on the strength of a pair of Stanislav Galiyev goals. Game Two was settled by the same score as Justin Azevedo scored on the power-play and Rob Klinkhammer potted his first game-winning goal in the second period. Note that foreshadowing.

Game Three saw CSKA cut the series deficit in half as they earned a 3-2 win in overtime. Anton Lander and Stanislav scored late in the first to give Kazan the 2-1 lead through 20 minutes, but a second period goal by Greg Scott tied the game. The game would end at the 12:25 mark of overtime after Kirill Petrov dented twine, and CSKA trailed in the series 2-1.

Game Four saw Justin Azevedo open the scoring in the first period, Anton Lander made it 2-0 in the second, and then Lander iced the game late in the third period when he scored an empty-net goal to make it a 3-1 victory for Ak Bars Kazan, putting them up in the series 3-1 over their Moscovian rivals.

That would take us to yesterday's Game Five where CSKA had to win or their season was over. The first period was a scoreless frame that saw CSKA lead in shots 9-3 thanks in part to a late power-play after Kazan's Albert Yarullin was whistled for interference. After 20 minutes, we'd move to the second period looking for our first goal.

The second period saw CSKA really pour on the pressure thanks to a pair of penalties to Yarullin for holding and tripping, respectively, midway through the period as they held a 25-7 advantage in shots through 40 minutes. A late high-sticking penalty to CSKA's Mikhail Pashnin would carry over into the third period, but we'd see zero goals scored in the middle frame as Ak Bars Kazan and CSKA Moscow went to the third period tied 0-0.

That high-sticking penalty to Pashnin? That would be the break that Kazan needed. Just 1:06 into the third period, Rob Klinkhammer's deflection off an Anton Lander shot found room past Lars Johansson while on the power-play, and the Snow Leopards were up 1-0! Kazan held the edge in shots in the period with a 9-8 advantage, but goaltender Emil Garipov stood tall in the Kazan net as he denied all 33 CSKA shots he faced to pitch the shutout as Ak Bars Kazan earned the Gagarin Cup with the 1-0 win in Game Five!

It's the first Gagarin Cup since 2010 for Kazan when they won the first two Gagarin Cups in KHL history. Officially, they are the most successful team in the KHL's short history with three championships in ten seasons! Head coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov joins Oleg Znarok as the only coaches in KHL history with three championships on their resum├ęs while Danis Zaripov now has five Gagarin Cup championships to his name in his ten seasons in the KHL. That's pretty impressive!

Of the notable names one might recognize of the Gagarin Cup champions, Andrei Markov, Alexander Svitov, Alexander Burmistrov, and Jiri Sekac join the aforementioned Justin Avezedo, Ron Klinkhammer, Anton Lander, Stanislav Galiyev, and Danis Zaripov.

Zaripov, if you'll remember, was banned for two years from international play by the IIHF for doping in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, but appealed and has his suspension reduced to six months. That reduction in his ban allowed him to return to the KHL and help Kazan win the Gagarin Cup - an almost surreal result considering he'd still be on the sidelines if he had lost his appeal.

Forward Justin Azevedo was named MVP after potting 28 points in this year's playoffs, and it's his first Russian championship in three tries after missing out in 2014 and 2015. He's the first non-Russian player to be named as playoff MVP, and he certainly has earned the recognition after his many years of service in the KHL.

As it is, the win by Kazan was seen as an upset as CSKA boasted eight gold medal-winning Russian Olympians in their lineup compared to zero in Kazan's lineup. Granted, Rob Klinkhammer did win a bronze medal in PyeongChang, but when it came to the fix of having an Olympian-laden squad winning the Gagarin Cup, there were some who whispered that one of CSKA or, preferably, SKA St. Petersburg was to win the championship to validate the Russian Ice Hockey Federation's efforts this season.

Instead, a team of former NHL players mixed with some solid Russian talent won 4-1 in a series against Amur Khabarovsk, downed Metallurg Magnitogorsk 4-1, and swept aside Traktor Chelyabinsk in four games to arrive in the final against Russia's most storied club in the Red Army team. CSKA, who hasn't won the league championship since their heady Soviet days, missed out on their second opportunity in three seasons after they fell in the final in 2016 to Magnitogorsk.

But it was not to be for CSKA Moscow as the Snow Leopards from Kazan played nearly flawless hockey in winning all three games at home in the final by one-goal margins. They were the top team in the Eastern Conference, but they were the clear underdogs entering the final as they finished some 24 points back of CSKA, but Ak Bars Kazan stands atop the mountain today thanks to their solid team play, some key contributions, and an incredible effort in the face of what seemed like incredible odds.

They sound like champions to me!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Off To Smashville

For the first time in 31 years, the Winnipeg Jets can state that they're off to the next round. That next round just happens to take place for potentially four games in the defending Western Conference champion's city of "Smashville" as the Nashville Predators will meet the Winnipeg Jets. There's a lot to be excited about if you're a fan of both these teams, and, if you're the media, you seem to have a lot to whine about when it comes to these teams meeting. We'll get to the second part of that statement in a bit, but there should be a lot of eyes on this series as these two divisional powerhouses clash to see who is the best of the Central Division!

It took Nashville a little longer to dispatch the feisty Colorado Avalanche and their carousel of goaltenders than one may have thought. I predicted the series would be closer than most gave Colorado credit for, and it seemed like upstart team from Denver wasn't about complaining when Semyon Varlamov was ruled done for the season prior to the playoffs starting. Instead, they turned to Jonathan Bernier who was very good in the Mile High City this season, and he led the charge against a Nashville team that seemed a wee bit too overconfident in their approach to this series.

In the first three games of the series that saw Nashville open the series at home, the Predtaors surrendered the first goals at 6:36, 2:34, and 1:50 in those three games, respectively. There seemed to be a refocusing of sorts as they took those deficits into the first intermission - a 3-0 deficit in Game Three - and came to life in the second periods of each of those games. The only problem? Winnipeg, who scored first in each of their five games against Minnesota, is a much better team defensively than the Avalanche are. Early deficits were a death knell for the Wild against the Jets, so Nashville will need to be better in the first ten minutes of this next series of games if they hope to eliminate the surging Jets.

Goaltending will certainly be on a more even keel than what Jonathan Bernier and Andrew Hammond brought to the series. Neither played poorly, but neither are on the caliber of Vezina nominee Pekka Rinne. That will change when he looks 200-feet down the ice to the Jets' net and sees Vezina nominee Connor Hellebuyck standing in the blue paint. If Rinne continues to put up un-Vezina-like numbers of a 2.60 GAA and a .909 save percentage in this round, that will be more than enough to give the Jets' shooters confidence in scoring goals. While injuries certainly took their toll on the Wild lineup, Hellebuyck's 1.93 GAA is down from his regular season mark of 2.36 while his save percentage has remained consistent at .924. If this series comes down to goaltending, you'd have to give the nod to the more consistent goaltender right now as Connor Hellebuyck is outplaying his Vezina-nominee counterpart in Rinne.

There will be all kinds of chatter about the defence corps used by these two teams, but there is a significant difference between the two teams in the opening round. Nashville's blue line, while arguably one of the best in the league, generated just one goal on 69 shots while adding eight assists in the opening round of the playoffs. If you take Matthias Ekholm out of the equation, the five remaining defenders contributed just three assists - and yes, that includes PK Subban, Ryan Ellis, and Roman Josi. If the Jets can contain Ekholm in a similar fashion as they did to Matt Dumba, the rest of the Nashville blue line will have to be more productive if they're going to win. With how they played against Colorado, it's going to be hard to kick up a few levels against Winnipeg.

That being said, Nashville's top four defenders were used twice as often as the bottom pairing of Alexei Emelin and Matt Irwin. Emelin averaged 11:28 per game while Matt Irwin checked in with 10:05 per game, so those two defenders are being used primarily to spell off the Big Four for short shifts. With the abuse that Winnipeg generously handed out to Minnesota in their defensive zone, can Ekholm, Josi, Subban, and Ellis withstand the punishment that Winnipeg will bring if they're playing no less than 22 minutes per night? Winnipeg is one of the top teams when it comes to hit through the first round of the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see how they handle the physicality.

And before we continue, let's not fall into the fallacy that more hits are good either. Hits, or more specifically finishing one's checks, is vitally important in wearing another team down. Running around and chasing players who have the puck specifically to throw hits is not good because your team doesn't have the puck. Possession does play a key role in the playoffs, and throwing hits for the sake of making SportsCentre's highlight reel will almost certainly result in losses.

Back to Winnipeg, and their defence corps has been far more impactful as they've contributed four goals on 67 shots and added eight assists. Even removing defensive leading scorer Dustin Byfuglien from the mix still yields four goals and three assists, so the contributions from the other six players who have slotted into the lineup have been good. Outside of Tucker Poolman, Winnipeg's regular six are playing between Joe Morrow's low of 16:34 to Dustin Byfuglien's high of 25:13, but removing those outliers sees the remaining four defenders in Trouba, Morrissey, Chiarot, and Myers skating between 17:20 and 22:28 on average per game. Fatigue in a long series can set in with the physical demands put on the body, but Winnipeg's bench management seems to be working out well as the team had a ton of jump in Game Five against the Wild.

However, all of this examination means very little right now. The two teams are watching video, preparing for their opponents, and making sure they're of good health before engaging in what will be an extremely entertaining series. Media across the land are lamenting that the top two teams in the NHL will meet each other in the second round, but all of this whining is ridiculous. Nashville finished with the highest point total with 117, and Winnipeg followed with 114. This is indisputable, and both teams should be commended. But this is the second year in a row that it's happened. If Boston can win their series, we'd also have the third-overall and fourth-overall teams going head-to-head in the second round, meaning two of the top-four regular season teams will be out in the second round.

Pump the brakes, though, and read this segment of the last line again with my bolded and capitalized words highlighting the most important part of the statement: two of the top-four REGULAR SEASON TEAMS will be out in the second round. Let that sink in as I wax poetic about why this is meaningless.

Since 1986 when the first President's Trophy was awarded to the best finisher in the regular season, eight times has the winning team gone on to capture the Stanley Cup. Some quick math says that's a 25% success rate as only eight times in 32 years has that been done. The most recent team to do it was the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks playing in a shortened season, and the last team to do it in a full NHL season was 2007-08 Detroit Red Wings. In the last ten years, it has only been accomplished once. In the last ten years, the President's Trophy-winning team has only appeared in the Stanley Cup Final twice (Vancouver in 2011). In the last decade, only three of the President's Trophy-winning teams have made it to the conference finals (New York Rangers in 2015). For the remaining seven years, including this year, the President's Trophy-winning team has not advanced past the second round. Nashville could change that this season, but there's no guarantee they will.

This lazy narrative of anger and fury over the best regular season team meeting the second-best regular season team is ridiculous once the regular season ends. Ask Washington what it meant to be the best team in 2015 and 2016 when they lost to Pittsburgh who was the fourth-best in 2016 and second-best in 2017. Or the New York Rangers in 2015 who lost in the Conference Final to fifth-best Tampa Bay after Tampa eliminated second-best Montreal in the second-round. Or Boston in 2013 when they lost in the second round to ninth-best Montreal while second-overall Anaheim lost in the second round to tenth-overall Los Angeles. The season rankings once the regular season is over are meaningless outside of who gets to play at home four times in a seven-game series.

If the Jets happen to eliminate the Predators in this round, they not only advance to the Western Conference Final, but they also claim home-ice advantage for the remainder of the playoffs. To the victors go the spoils, and the winner of this series will claim home-ice advantage throughout the remainder of the playoffs. It doesn't mean that team is the best team in the NHL by any means. That's why they hand out hardware at the end of this tournament to determine which team was the best for the ENTIRE season, regular and playoffs combined.

Regardless of the rhetoric from the media, this is going to be an outstanding series of hockey. Forsberg, Johansen, Subban, Josi, and Rinne against Wheeler, Laine, Scheifele, Byfuglien, and Hellebuyck. The Central Division has never been more hotly contested by two teams, and we'll see who moves on to play one of Vegas or San Jose in two weeks.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Losers In Lockouts

If there's one thing that looms on the horizon for the NHL and NHLPA, it's another lockout. I know it's the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs and I should be focused on those stories, but I have this sinking feeling that we're headed for another long and bitter hockey stoppage when the current CBA expires. Seattle is looking to get rolling, there are a number of teams who are building towards a better future, and there's a pile of individual achievements to celebrate, but that large shadow enveloping the horizon is closer than it may seem to be.

Everyone talks about loss during the lockout. Owners are losing money, players aren't making money and losing time off their already-short careers, and fans complain about simply losing hockey. If there's one segment of the landscape we never mention, it's the loss for the sponsors of the NHL. We never really consider them because they can still market their products another way, but one particular group of sponsors seems to get hit really hard during a lockout: adult beverage makers.

According to IEG research, the top-five most active marketing groups during hockey broadcasts were quick-service restaurants, auto manufacturers, medical, insurance, and beer producers as of 2015-16. Their spending on marketing during NHL broadcasts was up "6.7 percent from the previous year", and totaled some "$477 million in the 2015-2016 season". As per IEG, "Anheuser-Busch replaced Enterprise Holdings as the most active non-endemic sponsor" - the industry term of non-core brands on which the sports industry relies upon - so it would be fair to say that beer marketing money plays a large part in the total marketing dollars spent during NHL broadcasts, and Anheuser-Busch had 71% of the league's teams broadcasting and showing marketing messages for them.

In Canada, we'll go back to 2012 during the last NHL lockout where Molson Coors, the Montreal- and Denver-based brewer, saw cold weather sales of their products virtually disappear when the NHL decided to go AWOL.

"Whether it's people not actually physically going to the venues and consuming there, consuming in venues around the outlet before that, or indeed having NHL sort of parties at home, all of those occasions have disappeared off the map and you just can't replicate them," CEO Peter Swinburn told The Canadian Press in November 2012.

Swinburn's right when stating that there is really nothing else that can replace the NHL in Canada in the winter months. The NBA's Toronto Raptors are more of a regional draw for southern Ontario, the NFL certainly has the same fans, but not the same marketing tie-in that beer sales have had with NHL teams, and both Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer follow the same course as the Raptors in that they're extremely regional. The NHL's affect on Molson Coors' sales is pretty clear when it comes to the importance the NHL plays in getting people to consume their product.

Swinburn told reporters "that once the lockout ends, Molson Coors will seek financial compensation from the league over the negative impact that a lack of games has had on the hockey league sponsor" and that will help to recoup some of those lost sales, but it never fully makes up for what could have been a solid increase in sales year over year had the NHL simply remained on the ice. When you consider that Molson Coors beat expectations the prior year, there was hope their reported $375 million deal with the NHL would continue to see growth, especially north of the border. Hockey was supposed to be a major driver of that growth, but share prices were already falling just two months into the last lockout.

So why should this concern you and I as hockey fans? Local bars, taverns, and watering holes feel that pinch more than the breweries do. Your favorite place to catch the game would see a loss in sales on what normally would be game nights, and that's contributing to Molson Coors seeing less product being sold.

Local watering holes in Canada rely heavily on the 82-game NHL schedule to help boost sales by broadcasting the games. There's usually a beverage deal during the game that coincides with one of the NHL's beverage sponsors, and as a result of these decisions everyone benefits. The watering hole makes money, the beer producers make money, and the NHL makes money via the sponsorship. The trickle-down of the economics would be felt hardest at the bottom where those watering holes rely heavily on walk-up traffic and regular patrons to keep their businesses afloat.

CBC spoke with Winnipeg restaurant owner Tony Siwicki about the costs that he was forced to absorb after the NHL decided to lockout the players in 2012.
Tony Siwicki of the Silver Heights Restaurant in Winnipeg said since the Jets returned last season, he has bought team gear for staff, hired extra security, and even purchased a bus to shuttle fans from his eatery to home games.

"Now we've got all this money out that we … won't get back. We have to sit on it for, [in] the worst-case scenario, for another year," Siwicki said.

"I hope they come to an agreement," he added. "A lot of people … rely on this kind of entertainment to make money, to survive, to support their families."
While I appreciate that the NHL is a business on its own where financial stability is needed in order to keep it afloat, but there appears to be a major collision coming as the players are unhappy about shared hockey revenues and not playing in the Olympics while the NHL owners certainly don't want to share any additional monies they are required to share. With money being one of the key arguments to resolve in the upcoming CBA negotiations, this is more than likely going to be another ugly and prolonged work stoppage as both sides for every additional cent they can gain.

I don't envy local business owners and Canadian brewery owners when talk of CBA unrest comes up. It means loss of business and loss of profits from normally ravenous hockey fans who indulge in their businesses and products. And while the NHL needs to get its house in order, the longer they ignore these negotiations the more hurt they're doing to their partners who make the games and players popular.

While the CBA negotiations loom, some foresight would do the NHL a lot of good when it comes to helping out the people who do a lot of the groundwork in making the NHL the number-one sport in Canada.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Friday, 20 April 2018

Second Leg Booked

With their victory tonight, the Winnipeg Jets officially booked the second leg of their playoff journey as they dispatched the Minnesota Wild 4-1 in their series. Like the image to the left, I expect the bandwagon to start filling up quickly as more and more fans start cheering for Canada's most exciting team on ice, but, like the photo above, there are lots of seats on this bandwagon. The Jets showed off their depth in eliminating the Wild and will now have a few days for the bumps, bruises, welts, and cuts to heal as they prepare for one of Nashville or Colorado. If you aren't excited for these Jets, you may want to see if you still have a pulse!

Let's go to the Game Five highlights, compliments of Rogers Sportsnet and, mostly, the Winnipeg Jets.

A few things about tonight's win:
  • Jacob Trouba's goal just 31 seconds into the game broke a Winnipeg Jets franchise record for fastest playoff goal from the start of the game that was previously set at 53 seconds by Randy Carlyle back in 1995.
  • Brandon Tanev now leads the Tanev family in NHL Playoff goals. Brandon has a total of one; his older brother Chris, who plays for Vancouver, has zero.
  • After Minnesota anthem singer John deCausmeaker made his plea before Game Four about letting Winnipeg hear the passion of Minnesota fans, the Minnesota Wild scored a total of zero goals over the next six periods in being eliminated.
  • The sellout crowd announced at 15,321 inside BellMTS Place set a new volume record at one point during the night, registering at 114.3 decibels. That's a level 16 times higher than 70dB, and is 4.3dB higher than the average human pain threshold when it comes to sound. It would be equivalent to standing within one meter of a car whose horn is blaring.
  • The Jets haven't lost a game at home, including three in these playoffs, since February 27.
  • It was 31 years and five days since Winnipeg saw their pro hockey team advance to the second round of the NHL's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
  • Preliminary estimates had the crowd outside BellMTS Place numbering over 30,000 (edit: the final number was approximately 36,000).
In the end, the four first-period goals scored by the Jets paced them to the 5-0 win in Game Five, and the game ended with this sequence.

Get your boarding passes ready, folks. The second leg of this incredible flight is now accepting passengers, and you're welcome to join Jets fans in this fun and exciting spring.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

Thursday, 19 April 2018

The Hockey Show - Episode 291

The Hockey Show, Canada's only campus-produced radio show that strictly talks hockey, is back tonight with the first and second of what will eventually be fifteen exit interviews from Survivor: NHL Playoffs sponsored by Lay's and their Show Your Emotions contest. As you're probably aware, both Los Angeles and Anaheim were eliminated in sweeps by the Vegas Golden Knights and San Jose Sharks, respectively, as the second-round Pacific Division matchup is now set. Like we always do, we'll get in contact with those Survivors to let them know that their Survivor: NHL Playoffs contest is over. Before we do that, though, let's check the board!

As you can see, both Los Angeles and Anaheim have been made transparent and the names associated with them - Barry and Amy - have been written in gray as they will now fade to the background in Round One. Barry and Amy are due up tonight for their exit interviews, so tune in for those!

Tonight, Teebz and Beans dig into Game Five here in Winnipeg on Friday without Josh Morrissey in the lineup and how that will affect the Jets, the loss of Zach Parise for the Wild, the Penguins-Flyers series and why Pittsburgh might just three-peat after all, and we'll touch on the other series and their situations. We'll dig into the Aalborg Pirates of the Metal Ligaen being up 3-0 on the first-overall Herning Blue Fox in the final, the Calgary Flames dismissing head coach Glen Gulutzan, Paul Maurice's shout-out to head coach of the Bisons women's team in Jon Rempel, and we may touch on some more changes to Bisons hockey broadcasts again as there have been some exciting developments behind the scenes! All of this happens tonight at 5:30pm CT on UMFM!

How do I listen, you ask? The easiest way is for you to download the UMFM app on your phone or tablet. It's literally the easiest and most convenient way to listen to any of UMFM's great shows any time of the day, so go get it! Just follow this link on your iDevice or this link for your Android device and get the UMFM app! It's never been easier to tune into The Hockey Show or UMFM! Download the UMFM app today, and don't miss any of our great programming or shows! Of course, you can do the radio thing at 101.5 on the FM dial and you can always listen online via the UMFM website!

If you prefer social media, we try to remain up-to-speed there as well! Email all show questions and comments to hockeyshow@umfm.com! Tweet me anytime with questions you may have by hitting me up at @TeebzHBIC on Twitter. You can also post some stuff to Facebook if you use the "Like" feature, and I always have crazy stuff posted there that doesn't make it to the blog or show.

Tonight, Teebz and Beans talk suspensions, lineups, injuries, coaches, Pirates, Penguins, and more only on 101.5 UMFM, on the UMFM app, on the UMFM.com web stream!

PODCAST: April 19, 2018: Episode 291

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!